Why I Think School Should Start Later in the Morningby Eli Hendel, M.D. Medical Reviewer
In my last blog I discussed the condition known as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. I indicated this syndrome is prevalent in teenagers, caused by both natural changes with age, and also by cultural influences. I specifically suggested that when the condition results in daytime consequences (poor attention and focus), professional intervention is necessary.
One consideration should be a focus on school policies. Schools should consider adopting a schedule variability that allows a period of one to two weeks (adjustment) when the student is allowed to come in later in the morning. This allows for a period of synchronization between the child's schedule and internal clock. It especially might make sense after the summer break, when kids may have become used to staying out late and then sleeping in late.
Recent research suggests that I am not alone in this thinking. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a position statement on this particular challenge:
“Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.In a new policy statement published online August 25th, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”
Many studies document that most teenagers suffer from insufficient sleep. That puts them at higher risk for auto accidents and a decline in school performance. Given the ever increasing pressure that teenagers are facing in our culture and their emotional fragility, sleep deprivation can lead to adverse psychological consequences.
In fact, The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) conducted a poll and found that 87 percent of high school students were getting less than the recommended eight and a half hours of sleep on school nights.There are many factors contributing to this phenomenon, but the most critical factor is that schools start too early. Most school programs begin at 8 A.M. and up to 20 percent of schools start even earlier. The child is expected to spend much of the day in an environment that requires alertness and clear-thinking while sleep deprived.
Napping, catching up on more sleep on weekends, and consumption of caffeinated energy drinks and coffee can give teenagers the sense that they can cope with this sleep deprivation issue, but we experts know that is just not the case. The boost of alertness is quite temporary.
All of these compensatory behaviors do not restore the alertness that is required for school performance.
The complete solution to this problem is not just incumbent on the schools. Nothing will be accomplished if the current child and teen sleep habits remain the same. Health care professionals (many of whom are unaware of the intricacies of sleep deprivation), teachers, and parents, must be educated on the strategies of changing sleep habits. Young people have to understand the importance of changing their sleep habits. The stakes are pretty clear. If we don’t address sleep deprivation in the younger population, other disease processes, both mental and physical, can result from the chronic deprivation of sleep.
My quick sleep tips for parents and teens are:
Make the bedroom a quiet, cool place.
Disconnect from all tech devices an hour before sleep time.
Play soothing music for a short time before bedtime.
Wear earplugs if the home is noisy.
Put blackout shades on the windows if there is a lot of artificial light coming through from the outdoors.
Turn your clock away so the illuminated dial does not disturb you.
Immediately open the shades when you wake up in the morning.
Avoid caffeinated drinks after 4 P.M.
Avoid eating for at least three hours before bedtime.
Dedicate a minimum of one full hour of exercise during the day.
Finally, the ability to organize one’s time and schedule is a skill that will have lifelong benefits, in addition to supporting the better health that comes with appropriate amounts of sleep.